Juggler's Syndrome

Multitasking isn't just stressing us out -- it's endangering our health

| March / April 2004

As a physician involved in preventive medicine, I often ask my patients how they rate their current level of stress. Few ever say their stress levels are low. Most admit they're completely stressed out. In the process of exploring why, I've discovered a common denominator. These people feel overloaded. Most of us are trying to do too much. And it's a hard habit to break, because our age views multitasking as the normal way of getting things done. If we're not juggling a dozen different commitments at once, we tend to think there's something wrong with us.

From a medical perspective, however, the opposite is true.

Scientists are studying what happens to us when we try to do too much for too long, and the results are eye-opening.

There's no doubt that the human body is exquisitely adapted to deal with stress in brief doses. Our 'fight or flight' response is one example of the way that short bursts of heightened energy and vigilance can actually save our lives. But we aren't well adapted to deal with surges of adrenaline and cortisol -- two major stress hormones -- day after day. In evolutionary terms, traffic jams, two-career marriages, and kids involved in six after-school activities were not part of the plan.

Bruce McEwen, director of the neuroendocrinology lab at Rockefeller University, has studied the wear-and-tear effect of chronic stress on rats. As he describes in a book he co-authored, The End of Stress as We Know It (Joseph Henry Press, 2002), McEwen and his colleagues began restraining lab rats during their normal resting period. The resulting surge in stress hormones began to drop off earlier each day as the rats seemingly grew accustomed to the ordeal. But within three weeks the chronic stress began catching up with them. They grew anxious and aggressive. Their immune systems weakened. In their brains, the nerves in the hippocampus, a region involved in memory, began to shrink and stopped regenerating. The rats were burning out.

It appears that humans respond in much the same way. Chronically high cortisol levels lead to a number of health effects, including insulin resistance and poor sleep patterns. This reinforces bad eating habits, which then can trigger a fatigue that saps our desire to exercise. It's a vicious cycle. High cortisol levels can also lead to the production of cytokines, a protein that promotes inflammation. Cytokines have been linked to heart disease, depression, and inflammatory illnesses like arthritis and fibromyalgia.